THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Tetzaveh – פרשת תצוה
February 16, 2019 – יא אדר ראשון תשעט
This essay is sponsored by Joshua & Deena Davis in memory of Sylvia Griff Z”L; by Suzy Levin in memory of Joseph Levin (Yosef David ben Azriel v’Chanah) Z”L; and by Janet & Gary Waller in memory of Maxwell Alexander Z”L.
A Jewish Museum Exhibit
One of the High Priest’s eight vestments was a golden tiara known as the tzitz(ציץ). The words HOLY TO THE LORD (קדש לה’) were engraved on the metal plate (Exodus 28:36). An anonymous Tannaitic source states that the tzitz was two fingerbreadths high, in order to accommodate two lines. The Tetragrammaton was engraved on the upper line; the words “Holy to” (קדש ל) appeared on the lower line (Shabbat 63b). This departure from the plain meaning of the text was motivated by respect for the Name of God, and the need to avoid having any other letters occupy a more prominent position on the priestly diadem.
Rabbi Eleazar b’Rabbi Jose rejected the idea of a two-line tiara. He claimed to have seen the tztiz in Rome and that the words HOLY TO THE LORD were engraved on one line (Yerushalmi Yoma 41c).
There are several stories recorded in rabbinic literature about sages who went to Rome and saw important Jewish artifacts. In addition to seeing the tzitz, Rabbi Eleazar b’Rabbi Jose also claimed to have seen the Temple veil (פרכת), which separated the Holy from the Holy of Holies (Tosefta Yoma 2:16, Yoma 57a, Yerushalmi Yoma 42d). A later Midrashic work reports that he saw remnants of Solomon’s throne (Esther Rabbah 1:12). Rabbi Simon bar Yohai claimed to have seen the Menorah (Sifre Zuta 8).
The historical fact that sacred Jewish relics had been transferred to the heathen capital of a conqueror did not always sit well with Jews. Scripture makes clear that the army of Nebuchadnezzar sacked the First Temple and took its spoils back to Babylonia. Among the spoils were implements used in the Divine service (2 Kings 24:13, 2 Chronicles 36:18). Some of those vessels were restored by Cyrus and made available to those rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple (Ezra 1:7, 5:14). Yet during the Second Temple period, some writers preferred to believe that the holiest of items were never captured. According to a fantastical account, the earth was ordered to swallow up the sacred vessels “so that strangers may not get possession of them.” The vessels were to be regurgitated by the earth at the time of the final redemption and restoration of Jerusalem (2 Baruch 6:8). According to another account, Jeremiah, acting on God’s command, hid the Tent of Meeting, the Ark of the Covenant, and the Golden Altar in a cave on Mount Nebo (2 Maccabees 2:4-6). To a degree, the Talmud accepted this thinking in its assertion that King Josiah sequestered the Ark, the Anointing Oil, Aaron’s staff, and the commemorative vile of manna (Horayot 12a, Keritot 5b).
But, in the main, rabbinic literature recognizes the fact that the Romans took away many holy items upon their conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Titus, who slashed the Temple veil and entered the Holy of Holies, is said to have turned the veil into a receptacle and used it to transport the sacred vessels back to Rome (Gittin 56b). The Minor Tractates offers this list of items claimed to still be in Rome generations after the fall of the Judean Commonwealth: the mortar of the House of Avtinas (used to prepare the incense offering), the Golden Table of the Showbread, the Menorah, the veil, and the tzitz(Avot d’Rabbi Natan 41).
Josephus, an eyewitness, described how the Roman Legion hauled off from the Temple veils, priestly garments, precious stones, and sacred ornaments (Wars of the Jews 6:8:3), as well as the golden table, candlestick, and Law of the Jews (7:5:5). The golden vessels and instruments were put on display in the Temple of Peace, dedicated by Vespasian in 75 CE to the glory of the Flavian dynasty. The veil and scrolls of the Law were deposited in the royal palace (7:5:7). The Temple of Peace was a public forum. Any visitor to Rome, even a Palestinian rabbi, could have visited that Temple and seen the artwork and artifacts on display. A section of the royal palace, too, was a semi-public place where visitors could view artwork. The Temple of Peace was largely destroyed by fire in 191 CE. The rabbis who are said to have visited Rome and seen the Jewish relics lived during the mid-second century CE, making their visits entirely plausible.
Were rabbis supposed to look at Temple relics? During the Second Temple period there was a fiercely held priestly opinion against not only the physical violation of the cult but also any visual violation thereof. Josephus noted that when Pompey and his entourage entered the inner precincts in 63 BCE, they saw “that which was unlawful for any other men to see but for the high priests (Antiquities 14:4:4).” The rabbis, however, were democratizers and popularizers of Judaism. They rejected any supposed ban on non-priestly Jews’ witnessing of the Temple service or gazing upon Temple vessels. The Talmudim even go so far as to claim that the Table of the Showbread and the Menorah were taken out of the Sanctuary on festivals and displayed before throngs of pilgrims (Hagigah 26b, Yerushalmi Hagigah 79d).
The historicity of some Talmudic tales is rightly called into question. Those stories that magnify the cosmic roles played by the sages, have them encountering world leaders, or performing supernatural feats are to be taken as mere legends. The tale that brings together Rabbi Simon bar Yohai and Rabbi Eleazar b’Rabbi Jose is a good example (Me’ilah 17a-b). Disparate strands of rabbinic memory had both of those men making trips to Rome and reporting that they had seen Judaic relics. An artfully woven tale has the two men on a joint trip to Rome where they save the Jewish people from anti-Judaic legislation by exorcising a demon from the Emperor’s daughter. Their reward was a special tour of the emperor’s vault, where they saw the Temple veil.
While the bizarre details of the story can be dismissed, there is no reason to doubt that two prominent rabbis, separately, had visual access to Roman-held artifacts from the Jerusalem Temple. [Some scholars suggest that the visiting rabbis merely saw the panels on the Arch of Titus that depict the sacking of Jerusalem and the removal therefrom of the holy implements. These can be viewed today by anyone in Rome.]
Why did the rabbis go to Rome? Professor David Noy suggests that, among several other reasons for visiting the imperial capital, Palestinian rabbis may have been performing a reverse pilgrimage. No longer able to visit God’s House on Mount Moriah, they went to Rome to see the last physical vestiges of the Levitical cult.
It seems quite telling that Rabbi Eleazar b’Rabbi Jose is the sage most associated with the witnessing of Jewish relics in Rome. The ancient rabbis had little knowledge of history and were content not to know it. The only thing that mattered to them was halakhah; as for the past, they indifferently held that “what was, was” מאי דהוה הוה (Yoma 5b).
But one family of sages stands out for its antiquarian interests. Halafta discovered the stone monuments set down by Joshua in the Jordan River upon the Israelite crossing (Tosefta Sotah 8:6). His son, Rabbi Jose ben Halafta, was the compiler of the Seder Olam, a comprehensive rabbinic understanding of Biblical and post-Biblical chronology (Niddah 46b). His son, Rabbi Eleazar b’Rabbi Jose, evinced an interest in ancient Judaica. He took the time to notice bloodspots on the veil and the manner in which words were engraved on the tzitz.
Overall, however: The survival of Judaism was made possible by the continued study of our sacred literature and an appreciation for the long-lost, and eventually-to-be-restored, cult, even in the absence of tangible artifacts.